EE Cummings and the Importance of Bravery (in Being Yourself, in Feeling, and in Writing Poetry)
One of the 20th century’s most daring and powerful poets invites us to live without fear, to feel and, perhaps, to put that into words...
To be nobody-but-yourself — in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else — means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.
— e e cummings
e e cummings is perhaps one of the most strange, wonderful poets the United States produced in the 20th century. A brave rebel of poetic form and the expression of human feeling, for cummings, the moment in which we feel is precisely that moment in which we cannot be but ourselves. This is the moment many of us actually fear the most. And for this very reason, according to the poet, being afraid to feel is the worst thing that could happen to someone. It implies a separation from what we really are.
A few days before turning 59, Cummings published a text entitled “A Poet’s Advice to Students” in a small Michigan newspaper. A brief prose piece written as though it were a poem, it offers wonderful advice for creation, life and the complicated art of being oneself in a world that seems to be screaming for us not to be.
A poet is somebody who feels, and who expresses his feelings through words.
This may sound easy. It isn’t.
A lot of people think or believe or know they feel — but that’s thinking or believing or knowing; not feeling. And poetry is feeling — not knowing or believing or thinking.
Almost anybody can learn to think or believe or know, but not a single human being can be taught to feel. Why? Because whenever you think or you believe, or you know, you’re a lot of other people: but the moment you feel, you’re nobody-but-yourself.
Using brief, clear, vigorous words, like those of his own poetry, cummings establishes the importance of feeling as an intimate, unrepeatable experience. It’s something which makes us what we are, and it’s a vital, deeply necessary path for any person who leans toward artistic creation; this is especially true in the case of poets.
As for expressing nobody-but-yourself in words, that means working just a little harder than anybody who isn’t a poet can possibly imagine. Why? Because nothing is quite as easy as using words like somebody else. We all of us do exactly this nearly all of the time — and whenever we do it, we’re not poets.
If at the end of your first ten or fifteen years of fighting and working and feeling, you find you’ve written one line of one poem, you’ll be very lucky indeed.
And so my advice to all young people who wish to become poets is: do something easy, like learning how to blow up the world — unless you’re not only willing but glad, to feel and work and fight till you die.
Does that sound dismal? It isn’t.
It’s the most wonderful life on earth.
Or so I feel.
Being brave (something that must be taught from when we’re young) is perhaps the easiest and the most difficult advice we can receive. Finding an original, genuine voice is a life-long job. Originally intended for those who aspire to be poets, the essay is essential for anyone, artist or otherwise, as it speaks of that which cummings considers the truest struggle one can make in one’s life. Through a letter that’s at once a poem, he invites us to be nothing more and nothing less than ourselves.
*Image: Caspar David Friedrich: Der Mönch am Meer, 1810 / Creative Commons
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